March 2020

The Mediterranean Region looks at China
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As cases of COVID-19 have increased, the pandemic has accordingly become the main topic of discussion in the media of the wider Mediterranean region as many are worried about the health and economic damages that it will cause. Indeed, regardless of the geographical position, there has emerged a region-wide consensus that the pandemic broke out in a moment of extreme social and economic fragility. It is against this background that China is, for some, a savior and, for others, a cynical power.

In general criticism against China—either regarding how it managed the outbreak of COVID-19 or for problems related to its assistance to other countries—is more widespread in Southern Europe, though we found very blunt attacks also in North African and Middle Eastern newspapers. Unsurprisingly, given the substantial attention observed by Chinese and Western media, Italy is one of the countries where the debate on the coronavirus is most closely connected to the discussion related to the country’s relations with China. The Chinese embassy in Rome has made significant public relations efforts in order to show how quick and effective is Chinese solidarity. As the Chinese ambassador Li Junhua emphasized, this is a special year for the Sino-Italian relations (the 50th anniversary of the establishment of diplomatic relations) and China wants to express its support for Italy. [1] Yet, as it has happened before, Italian journalists have questioned the sincerity of Chinese help and consequently attacked politicians, like Foreign Affairs Minister Luigi Di Maio, that have praised China. The Minister, in particular, was criticized for having fallen prey to Chinese propaganda, trying to take credit for the arrival of Chinese gears that, in reality, had been bought. [2] They were not donations. The so-called “Chinese model”, that part of the Italian political establishment described as effective, also came under attack as it remains unclear if the stringent quarantine measures really contained the pandemic. [3] Warnings launched by the Italian security services, further confirmed by independent studies, also indicate that Italy has been at the center a concerted influence campaign launched by Chinese and Russian actors. [4] Besides political influence, there is widespread fear that foreign investors, both European and non-European ones, might act on the weakness of many Italian companies to buy them. The security services have been placing pressure on the government also over this issue in order to approve more stringent controls. [5] China is always mentioned as the potential target of these measures as the controversies related to medical assistance undermine Beijing’s public relations efforts.

In comparison, the level of politicization seems far lower in Spain and Greece. Although Chinese medical equipment has been found ineffective, [6] the concerns for the economic impact of the pandemic on both countries dominate the debate. Like in Italy, Spanish and Greek newspapers write of imminent recession caused by the quarantine and the severe decrease of trade with other countries. [7] The Athens-based newspaper Kathimerini wrote that the activities of the Piraeus Port have been slowing down significantly. [8] In part, this is because much of the goods arriving there were shipped from China and the block of the economy caused by the quarantine has had a naturally negative effect. However, the port also plays a pivotal role in the Mediterranean maritime economy as the many other ports in the region and northern Europe are implementing new measures to slowdown the loading and offloading of goods from the ships. Italian ports, according to the article, are in a worse situation because no ship wants to dock in fear of being forced to quarantine for 14 days elsewhere if the next port’s authorities know that the ship previously docked in Italy.

In reviewing the topic in North Africa and the Middle East, we found that the arrival of the coronavirus is seen both as a disaster and as the harbinger of a new regional order. In some countries, like Morocco, [9] Chinese companies supply important components for local manufacturers and many will have to reduce or halt their activities because of the interruption of the production in China. Oil-producing countries are forced to reconsider their financial plans as coronavirus-induced economic crisis pushes down the demand for oil. Kuwait, for example, loses USD 13 million a day for this reason. [10] In Iran, although Chinese solidarity is greatly appreciated, [11] the situation is becoming desperate to the extent that some publicly suggested the use of money from institutions like the Mostazafan Foundation, that are the financial pillars of the offices of the Supreme Leader or the Islamic Revolutionary Guard, in order to allow the economy to recover. [12] Another article published by Tabnak News Agency foresees a future of economic recession, war, and famine. [13] In other countries, China’s reaction to the outbreak of the virus and its assistance are seen as evidences of the end of American-led globalization and regional order. Unsurprisingly, Syrian media are among the strongest supporters of this argument. According to Al-Watan, the measures enacted by China are a model to emulate. Moreover, not only does Chinese assistance put the Americans and Europeans to shame, but it is also consistent with the values of Islam. This religious element in the Middle Eastern debate is not new; we found it also in February but instead to criticize China. Less emphatic but still strong endorsements for Chinese actions can be found in Jordan’s Al Dostour, where the leadership of Xi Jinping is highly praised. [14] Palestinian, Lebanese, and Egyptian commentators are all positive in their assessment of Chinese policies at home and abroad. [15] Béchir Ben Yahmed, the founder of the Paris-based, Tunisia-oriented Jeune Afrique, too, expressed his great confidence in the China-World Health Organization partnership to tame the coronavirus, especially because the organization is led by an “African of great qualities” like Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, though he also fears that many African countries do not have the capabilities to imitate China. [16] Against this background, we found only one article explicitly critical of China and the alleged cover-up of the initial warnings launched by doctors in Wuhan. [17]

We close this issue of the ChinaMed Observer with an interesting article published in the Israeli newspaper Globes. [18] The authors, that are aware that their argument might be seen as controversial by many inside and outside the government, embrace the damage that the virus will cause to the Israeli economy for the sake of national security. Indeed, they argue that COVID-19 might be a wake-up call for many to understand that it is necessary to reduce the dependence of the Israeli economy on Chinese capital and markets. If such an adjustment can be made, they emphasize, Israel would also reduce the American concerns related to the presence of Chinese contractors in an important part of the Israeli economy. Given the continuous and intense debate regarding how to balance strategic ties with the United States and florid economic relations with China, this article suggests that COVID-19 might play an unexpectedly determinant role in the evolution of the Sino-Israeli relations as the “pro-business” and the “pro-security” sides of the debate have not yet managed to find and agreement or win the discussion.

[1] Lucia Pozzi, Coronavirus, l'ambasciatore cinese Li Junhua: «In prima linea con l’Italia per superare l’emergenza» [Coronavirus, the Chinese ambassador Li Junhua: We are with Italy at the frontline against this emergency], Il Messaggero, March 24, 2020, link.

[2] Giulia Pompili, Ma quali aiuti della Cina contro il virus, è tutta roba che compriamo [No aid from China, we paid for it all], Il Foglio, March 12, 2020, link.

[3] Daniele Ranieri, Il “modello cinese” non è un trionfo [The “Chinese model” is not a triumph], Il Messaggero, March 19, 2020, link.

[4] Gabriele Carrer e Francesco Bechis, Così la Cina fa propaganda in Italia, con i bot. Ecco l’analisi su Twitter di Alkemy per Formiche [This is how China spreads propaganda in Italy with bots. This is the analysis carried out by Alkemy for Formiche], Formiche, March 30, 2020, link.

[5] Antonio Signorini, Cresce il pressing sul governo. Conte: protegga i nostri gruppi dalle scalate [Growing pressure on the government, Conte must protect our companies], Il Giornale, March 18, 2020, link.

[6] Elena G. Sevillano and Ana Aflageme, Los test rápidos de coronavirus comprados en China no funcionan bien [The rapid coronavirus tests bought from China do not work well], El Pais, March 27, 2020, link.

[7] Antonio Maqueda, El virus condena a la economía española a la recesión [The virus condems the Spanish economy to the recession], El Pais, March 21, 2020, link; Kostas Antonakos, Anoigoun exi pliges stin oikonomia apo tin epidimia koronaiou Ανοίγουν έξι πληγές στην οικονομία από την επιδημία κοροναιού [Six wounds that are opening up in the economy because of the coronavirus pandemic], Businessdaily.gr, March 12, 2020, link.

[8] Nikos Rousanoglou, O koronoios xtupise kai to limani tou Peiraia Ο κορωνοιός χτύπησε και το λιμάνι του Πειραιά [The coronavirus hits the Piraeus Port], Kathimerini, March 21, 2020, link.

[9] Moncef Ben Hayoun, Entretien avec Ludovic Saubran, économiste en chef du group Alliance et d’Euler Hermes [Interview with Ludovic Saubran, chief economist of the Alliance Group and Euler Hermes], Le Matin, March 11, 2020, link; Mustafa Benguida, Mohammad al-Dhahabi, al-katib al-ʿam li-l-ittihad al-ʿam li-l-muqawalat wa-mihan: wabaʾ Corona inʿakasa ʿan al-muqawalat al-maghribiyya mundhu zuhurihi bi-l-Sin wa-qabla intisharihi bi-baqy duwal al-ʿalam, محمد الذهبي، الكاتب العام للاتحاد العام للمقاولات والمهن وباء "كورونا" انعكس على المقاولة المغربية منذ ظهوره بالصين وقبل انتشاره بباقي دول العالم [Mohammad Al-Dahabi, Secretary General of the General Union of Contractors and Professions: The coronavirus has affected the business of Moroccan contractors since its appearance in China and before its spread to the other countries], Al-Sahra, March 23, 2020, link.

[10] Sultan al-ʿAbdan, Al-Kandari yahdhiru min makhatir corona ʿala al-iqtisad الكندري يحذر من مخاطر «كورونا» على الاقتصاد [Al-Kandari warns about the dangers of Corona for the economy], Al-Anba, March 5, 2020, link.

[11] Mohsen Ahdi, Corona; fasl-e jadid-e do mellat-e Iran va Cin / Diplumasi-e ʿomumi dar bastar-e covid-19 کرونا؛ فصل جدید دو ملت ایران وچین/دیپلماسی عمومی در بستر کووید-۱۹ [Coronavirus: The new phase of the relations between the nations of Iran and China in the context of COVID-19], Mehr News Agency, March 15, 2020, link.

[12] Ciniha bara-ye moqabele ba peyamadha-ye eqtesadi-e shoyuʿ-e corona ce kardand va ma bayad ce konim? چینی‌ها برای مقابله با پیامد‌های اقتصادی شیوع کرونا چه کردند و ما باید چه کنیم؟ [What did the Chinese do to mitigate the economic consequences of the coronavirus outbreak and what should we do?], Tabnak News Agency, March 23, 2020, link.

[13] Corona ce taʾsir-i bar ayande-ye Khovarmiyane va dowlatha-ye An khwahad dasht? کرونا چه تاثیری بر آینده خاورمیانه و دولت‌های آن خواهد داشت؟ [What consequences will coronavirus have on Middle East and its countries?], Tabnak News Agency, March 28, 2020, link.

[14] Ban Weifang, Al-Sin mustaʿidda li-musharakat al-Urdun tajrubatiha fi ʿallaj al-firus الصين مستعدة لمشاركة الأردن تجربتها في علاج الفيروس [China is ready to share its experience in treating the virus with Jordan], Al-Dostur, March 29, 2020, link.

[15] Ammad Farij, Otabbaʾ filastiniun yastafidun min khibarat nazraʾihim al-siniyyin fi muwajahat corona, أطباء فلسطينيون يستفيدون من خبرات نظرائهم الصينيين في مواجهة "كورونا" [Palestinian doctors benefit from the experiences of their Chinese counterparts in facing the coronavirus], Al-Hayat al-jadida, March 30, 2020, link; Hassan Shaqrani, “Athar al-firus” bayna-l-Sin wa-l-Gharb: inkisar halaqat al-intaj wa-l-istihlak yumahhidu li-ʿawlumat jadida «أثر الفيروس» بين الصين والغرب: انكسار حلقات الإنتاج والاستهلاك يمهّد لعولمة جديدة [The “effect of the virus” between China and the West: the breakdown of production and consumption cycles paves the way to a new globalization], Al-Akbar, March 30, 2020, link; Bishoy Ramzy, Kayfa tasʿy Rusiya wa-l-Sin li-sahb al-sarʿiyyat al-dawliyya min al-qiyadat al-amrikiyya li-l-ʿalam ʿibra “corona”? Al-inghilaq kashafa al-wijh al-insaniyy al-qabih li-Washington… wa-l-quwa al-jadida tansaqu bi-shikl jayyid wa taqaddimu nifsaha ka-badil li-l-amrikan fi manatiq al-nufudh كيف تسعى روسيا والصين لسحب الشرعية الدولية من القيادة الأمريكية للعالم عبر "كورونا"؟... الانغلاق كشف الوجه الإنسانى القبيح لواشنطن.. والقوى الجديدة تنسق بشكل جيد وتقدم نفسها كبديل للأمريكان فى مناطق النفوذ [How are Russia and China trying to take the world leadership from the Americans as a result of the coronavirus? The lockdown showed the ugly face of Washington and the two new powers are cooperating well and presenting themselves as an alternative to the Americans], Al-Youm al-7, March 30, 2020, link.  

[16] Béchir Ben Yahmed, Un partenariat Chine-Afrique-OMS pour venir à bout du coronavirus [The China-Africa-WHO partnership to overcome the coronavirus], Jeune Afrique, March 23, 2020, link.

[17] Muhammad Salama, Al-Sin akhtaʾat marratayn, الصين..أخطأت مرتين [China made a mistake twice], Al-Dostur, March 14, 2020, link.

[18] Jacob Nagel and Jonathan Schenzer, Deaa: le-mashber ha-corona yihihou hashpaoot marchikot lechet al yachasey israel sin ve-arhab, דעה: למשבר הקורונה יהיו השפעות מרחיקות לכת על יחסי ישראל-סין-ארה"ב [Opinion: The coronavirus crisis will have far-reaching effects on the Israel-China-US relations], Globes, March  25, 2020, link.

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